Where began the exploitation film is much discussed and disputed. Whilst many people believe that the exploitation boom was borne out of the public’s readiness to attend sexual hygiene films for a more titillating experience than the makers were expecting, others have disputed that exploitation reaches back to the very start of cinema.
From its very invention, morally dubious visionaries were mining darker elements of reality for their short pictures; whether it was coercing ladies to perform rigid stripteases for the camera (Pirou’s 1899 production of Le Coucher de la Mariée), killing large mammals (Thomas Edison’s proto-mondo Electrocuting an Elephant), or fictionalised violence (1904’s The Great Train Robbery). You may recognise these elements as common throughout the history of the exploitation film. Traffic in Souls which was among the first feature length narratives and, certainly, the first to thoroughly dig into exploitative themes as we recognise them today, becoming the earliest example of the two theories of the genre’s roots converging.
Sexual slavery, known as white slavery; so as to be distanced from the enslavement of black people, was a vexed issue at the turn of the century. Stories of forced prostitution began to dissipate through the media of the time, and soon a moral panic was to break out. In 1910, after a lengthy lobby, white slavery was rendered illegal by the US government courtesy of Congressman James Robert Mann and his Mann act. After sexual slavery was declared officially illegal, it became even more of a talking point. Shrewd producer Carl Laemmle, shortly after joining together his Independent Moving Pictures (IMP) company with that of a number of other production companies to create Universal Film Manufacturing Company, formulated a feature idea based on the concept of white slavery – the first of its kind. Producing it through IMP, he tasked staff writer and director George Loane Tucker to craft a film around this concept. Dissension ran through the Universal bigwigs offices as they, despite forming a company together, found it very difficult to agree on almost anything. In-fighting between studio head Laemmle and his co-founders, particularly Pat Powers, meant that production of Traffic in Souls was troubled. Tucker and his team were permitted to shoot, one scene at a time, in between takes on other sets.
With no-one at the studio scrutinising the production, Tucker managed to shoot ten reels of footage over four weeks and spend $5,700 of the studio’s money doing so. Universal co-founder Mark Dintenfass was able to break away from the board room scuffles long enough to take a look at what Tucker had been up to, needless to say he was furious at this waste of money. After many altercations with Dintenfass,
Tucker left the finished picture in the hands of producer Jack Cohn and fled to London, not before issuing Cohn with the instruction to not cut the film shorter than seven reels. Cohn was ashamed by the ten reels of footage and, not yet daring to face Laemmle, he hid it in his bottom drawer. After secretly working on the edit in his spare time for a month, Cohn had a six reel picture that included titles. Tucker was to never see Traffic in Souls in its completed state, not returning from England until it was off-screen and then, rather more permenantly, dying. Interestingly, Cohn, during an attempt to cut down the film’s length, removed the writing credit for George Loane Tucker as he was already credited as director. Instead, sole writing credit was given to Walter MacNamara, a consultant on the picture, who immediately shot to fame as a sought-after screenwriter.
Jack Cohn had arranged for the film, now informally known as Tucker’s Folly, to be screened for Laemmle privately but, still fuming from an argument with Pat Powers, Cohn could only watch helplessly as Laemmle ranted to his aide throughout. His mood was as such that it looked like he was going to quash the film causing Cohn to be liable for one fifth of the movie’s production budget. In desperation, Cohn visited Laemmle’s residence in the middle of the night, practically begging for him to take another look at Traffic in Souls. After this second viewing, Laemmle approved the picture and now had the tough task of finding a home for it. The six reel behemoth was about four reels to heavy for the usual picture houses.
Universal co-founder, Carl Laemmle, came under fire from his partners at the production company who lambasted him for spending an unprecedented $5,700 on the making of Traffic in Souls, to the point where the proto-mogul offered to purchase the picture from them for just over double the budget. Reports state that the response from Universal went something along the lines of “if you’ll put up $10,000, it must be worth a million!” with a counter-offer of $25,000. With this offer declined, they charged Laemmle with the task of making sure the film was profitable to them.
Hiring Weber’s theatre on the corner of New York’s classy 28th and Broadway to show the controversial film. Entrance to the theatre ranges from 25c to $1 depending on which magazine you read. Due to the film’s budget, advertising, cost of exhibition, and the backstage wranglings at the studio, none of Universal’s men, including Laemmle, had any interest in attending. That is, until a call from the theatre’s in-house treasurer came in, shortly after 2pm on November 24th 1913. A dismal day of dark cloud and drizzle was unable to stop the hordes of patrons as a double line stretch for two entire blocks and back again.
After reportedly playing to 30,000 spectators in its first week, Traffic in Souls attracted the attention of The Shubert Organisation – a powerful team of theatre producers ran, at that time, by Jacob and Lee Shubert, who also owned a number of exhibition houses across the city. The Shuberts, as they were informally known, offered to purchase a third of the film for the sum of $33,333.33 for the purpose of exhibiting the film across the city and a taste of the profits. Clearly, those at Universal who had underwritten Laemmle’s project had seen the light and, apparently, valued the film considerably higher than previously.
A deal between Universal and The Shuberts could not be reached, speculation of the time was that the film’s worth was going up every day with Universal increasingly protective over the property. Laemmle then opted to rent nine more theatres in the area, all showing Traffic in Souls. At its peak, Traffic was shown in no less that 28 theatres at once, the first film to simultaneously play this many theatres at once. Not content with providing the blueprint for a century of exploitation, Traffic in Souls was a forbearer of cinema in general; proving to all that people would happily and regularly part with their hard earned dollars for feature length narrative films.
One of the theatres rented to display Traffic in Souls was owned by Oscar Hammerstein. Known at the time as a New York theatre magnate, and later as father of half of the writing duo Rodgers and Hammerstein, he had turned over management of said theatre to fellow writer David Belasco. Seeing the value of exhibiting the film, Belasco sublet the theatre to Universal in a move that caused Hammerstein to file a lawsuit against him citing that this theatre should only be displaying what he referred to as “first class productions”. Quoted as saying “[Traffic in Souls] is not only not first class but an indecent assault committed to film”, Hammerstein’s tune quickly changed when Universal, flush with success, paid him off to the tune of $40,000 and 15% of the profits.
Though the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, ostensibly the censorship organisation for the United States, had approved the film with the caveat that although the film itself was deemed fine, they were not responsible for how the picture was advertised by Universal or local exhibitors. A move that pre-empted the exploitative marketing of the film. As news of this controversial picture spread, a backlash from the conservative and religious groups was only a matter of time. Though the national censorship body had given the film the thumbs up, local censors employed by their regional government were appalled by the film.
It was initially banned in Chicago among other cities, eventually to be shown in a truncated form with around 18 minutes cut from it. By early 1914, a reverend and head of the New York Civic League by the name of Dr. William Shafe Chase attempted to lobby the committee of education to remove the production of these films. Chase, by all accounts a pernicious and proper gentleman, had received complaints about the film from members of his flock who had been exposed to the film and suffered adverse reactions. As censorship was a hot issue, covered in part by the first amendment, he did not call for the film to be banned but rather that Traffic in Souls, and films of its ilk that purport to be educational but in fact seek to exploit this quality, be legally unable to charge a ticket levy for entrance to screenings. These, and countless other, efforts failed leading America to witness a slew of wave of white slave films, the most notable being a short named The Inside of the White Slave Traffic toward the end of 1913. As it was produced by Samuel H. London, known at the time for educational pictures, it had a certain gravitas that caused much debate when it was marketed as yet another salacious glimpse into the seedy world of people trafficking resulting in litigation and police action.